The Element: Chapter 8


The Element: A series of articles to explore and improve the methods used for meetings between small teams striving to perform at an expert level.

The 5-Man Team found themselves in Ann Arbor, an appropriate location to visualize the meaning of team membership. The Graduate Hotel, updated in recent years by changed ownership of what was The Campus Inn.

The Graduate Hotel

Rusty gazed along all 40-foot of the common area table that provided a perfect location to sit back and view the parade of pedestrians and cars along East Huron Street. The table brought back a flood of college study memories. Yellow legal pads filled with sketches and notes, and a spread of books with color tabbed pages. The fresh smell of coffee caught his attention and it connected with an immediate urge.

The Graduate Hotel Table 2

“Let’s call the meeting to order,” said Test Drive. “Everyone grab a seat.” Seeing the distraction in Rusty’s eyes, Test Drive nodded. “Yes, Rusty, bring everyone of cup.”

With the caffeine fix in front of them, they enjoyed the deep flavor of the black liquid. Good coffee.  Rusty could not relate to those folks that destroyed the taste with flavored creamer.

“Now can we start, Rusty?” Asked Test Drive.

“I am finally ready,” said Rusty.

“Good,” he said. “I hope our last meeting was exciting for everyone. We successfully navigated the Goldilocks theme and discussed how project size being just right can affect the outcome. Rusty, you have the Point-Man position for todays discussion. What are we doing in Ann Arbor?”

“Everything is Team,” said Rusty. “It means that everything that we do is through the support of a team that we belong to, either currently or in our past. What I want to focus this meeting on is a discussion about absolutes that exist in the mind’s of individual teammates as a constraint to empathy, and hence, a constraint to the team.”

Rusty paused, looking for powerful words to let the team into his thoughts.

“It is my belief that real communication occurs in the shared empathetic space between team members. It is a mutual empathy, driven by a need to see more than what can be seen on their own, combining insights of others for a better product.  Theory of Mind is our ability to understand ourselves, and other’s unique motives and perspectives. Each person has their own set of triggers, which are topics that dwell up emotions rather than an ability to engage the mind in a more constructive way.”

“Let’s explore that thought with an example,” said Test Drive.

“Think of a person as a circle,” said Rusty, “with varying thicknesses of empathy that are influenced by both experience and topic environment. At its inner depth there exists a constraint that restricts further collaboration, a trigger. The depth of empathy is developed through topic practice, one’s ability to be familiar and objective. With practice, the topic becomes comfortable enough to allow others into the circle. How deeply can people engage? It stops with the person that has the shallowest trigger depth.”

“Now for the hard part,” said Rusty. “Sometimes, to change someone’s mind, you need to change your own. Ask the question why taking opposition to a topic bothers you. Do you have something to deal with in your own life that closely relates to the feelings brought on by this exposure? Exposure to more experiences prepares people to be in control of their own feelings.”

“Rusty, you can be deep at times,” said Test Drive. “You are up next Coach. What does the First Defense-Man have to say?”

“How does a team perform as an elite Element? Said Coach. “Let’s say it is when the team can relate experiences with each other without constraints. I fully believe a team member must be comfortable enough with a topic to bring it to the table, and the team must be comfortable enough with the topic to engage.”

Coach thought for a minute about the importance of time and the formulation of trust between team members. Where does this happen? And then it clicked.

“Two friends can part for long periods of time,” said Coach. “When they come back together, it was like they just saw each other yesterday. They pickup where they left off. No denying that time spent in the past enables a certain amount of mutual empathy that can last for years, if not decades.”

“Heck, I can almost have full conversations with a person inside my head, without them even being present.” Said Test Drive.

“Like voices in your head?” Asked Coach.

“No, not voices! Said Test Drive. “It is just that I understand certain people so well, because of spending so much time with them, that I know how they would respond if they were talking to me.”

“So, we are back to the idea that mutual empathy can be influenced by creating a long history with the team,” said Coach. “It seems to be a reoccurring theme to our conversations.”

“Sounds like it,” said Test Drive.  “T, you are up.  What does the Second Defense-Man have to add?”

“There is a famous speech from 1983, The Team, The Team, The Team, given by Bo Schembechler,” said T. “It highlights the idea of mutual empathy in a team, weighing actions against how they affect the team. The speech stirs ideas about the determination of an elite team. This is about being a part of something bigger than the individual, and doing the job that the team believes in. In the case of The University of Michigan Football Team, it was a goal to win a championship together.”

T thought about her favorite memories of watching U of M Football. She remembered the players picking up the ball and handing it to the referee after the play was over. The spot newscaster talking to a player that scored multiple touchdowns in a game, and the language they used to say they were thankful to be supported and a part of the team. Laser focused in her thoughts, she knew where to take the conversation.

“The ultimate challenge is to be humble after a great individual performance,” said T. “To exhibit humility, and relinquish one’s moment in the spotlight to acknowledge the team that made it possible, is hard for most. They earned it, but not without a host of supporting characters. People work and play for many reasons. Play with the dog eat dog attitude, and when we finally get to our destination, we might not like the person that looks us in the mirror. The best game play is not for personal glory, the wrong reasons, that does not allow room for others when celebrating the victory. Who are the people that have enough empathy for themselves and the team they play or work with? Is it just a belief to fully invest in the team and the success will be determined by how well the team works together? People do it because there is no feeling like succeeding with a team that shares in the experience. There is something about the act of being selfless when working toward a common goal.”

“So, what traits would you find in elite team members?” Asked Test Drive”

“Mutual respect, humble, humility, supportive of others, and tough enough to get the job done,” said T.

“Not a bad list,” said Test Drive. “It seems appropriate to the meeting location. From what I have heard, our hotel hosts The University of Michigan Football Team the night before home games.”

“Go Blue!” Said T.

“OK, Freelance. You are in the role of Rear Security,” said Test Drive. “What thoughts do you want to add?”

“I am thinking about people using their knowledge of others to get under a team member’s skin. Why egg them on? Why look for their buttons to see what makes them tick or react? Why push the boundary? The person being probed will understand where their limitations are. Is their reaction a weakness, when their mind forces a defensive position?

Freelance had seen these verbal interactions, and found the pure passion and emotional response very interesting. He wondered how to best describe this process as an opportunity of personal growth rather than a manipulative way to just get a reaction.

“Why is a topic so right for some and so wrong for others?” Asked Freelance. “They have not mastered the ability to deal with the trigger. To open yourself by exhibiting empathy, it creates a strength when facing the unknown vulnerability. There is a suspense created to see how it all plays out. Most do not see the opportunity to move themselves forward. They get stuck in their laser focused coping mechanism, and become rattled and oblivious to objectivity.”

“Are you saying that picking on someone can be a good thing?” Asked Test Drive.

“Exactly,” said Freelance. “What is perceived as an attack on personal views or truths, may just be the first step to identify our own shortcomings. What is seen as a bully may not really be a malicious attack. If the trigger is followed by laughing, it could be interpreted as kidding around followed by a method to disarm the situation. Does this interaction break down the empathy barrier to practice topics that people avoid?”

“Wow. This is an addition that I would not have seen coming,” said Test Drive. “That is the power of team input, to bring some very different views to the table.”

“You have fallen into a rule of thumb mentality, and stopped thinking for yourself,” Freelance said as he smirked.

“Actually, I have that trigger under control,” said Test Drive. “But, I am sure the team is thankful for the useful demonstration of your theory.”

“Our meeting is over, and just in time to get something stronger than coffee,” said Freelance. “The hotel has a cocktail lounge, the Allen Rumsey Supper Club, that is a throwback to an era from decades ago. Hardwood surrounding a dark green, textured velvet walls. It think is a lounge that Rusty dreams about, taking a trip back in time to think about what it would be like to live in an era that we can only see in old movies.”

Allen Rumsey Supper Club.jpg

“Like the Hustler,” said Rusty. “I can only imagine that the lounges on the U of M campus looked just like this back in the 1960’s. What a wonderful trip into the past without a time machine.”

Design Thinking [Define] Chapter 9 is up in our next issue.  You are on the team, so please comment on this issue to add additional experiences that can be drawn from to create a solid project definition.


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